This post is the third in a series about including diverse voices in English curriculum while exploring issues and needs related to gifted students. This series will focus on various essays found in the YA nonfiction anthology, Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
View the first post and more about this anthology here. Guidelines for integrating this text or individual essays in your curriculum and how to set up things appropriately with your students are also included at this first post.
How do you explore feminism and sexual assault issues in your classroom?
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Sexual Assault Awareness Month is April. Educators know that any month of the year, any of our students could be a survivor. Class readings can also reference rape, assault, and other traumatic events–To Kill a Mockingbird, Kaffir Boy, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings being just some of the texts needing special attention and explication. TV, film, and other media our students consume on a daily basis may be rife with rape culture references. If we are silent about these things, this is a choice.
Our gifted students–many of whom show deep concern for social justice, possess strong emotional sensitivity, and avid commitment to activism–may wonder why we don’t address these issues directly, or why we shy away from these conversations. Texts and resources such as this post’s featured essay can provide a pedagogy of hope: role models, information, and alternatives to the current culture. A pedagogy of hope can expose students to feminist activists who work daily to ensure we stop sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of misogyny.
How can we make these difficult conversations happen? Young adult author Amy Reed, also editor of this anthology, knows how to address these issues with a forthright directness and courage that can inspire students to speak their truths as well.
Am I Really a Feminist?
Amy Reed (The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World,The Nowhere Girls, Clean, Beautiful, and many others) offers an essay, “Finding My Feminism” sharing how she as a young and gifted activist broke through shame and misogyny. Now a leading feminist voice in YA literature, she shares with great vulnerability her trauma from rape, the complex emotional landscape she’s had to navigate, and how she has found ways to survive and transform despite the pain. Like many gifted youth, she once asked tough questions of herself and faced a deep ambivalence about her identity and worth as a human being. For those who often go down this rabbit hole of self-analysis, this essay will resonate. Her story is a powerful resource to explore with your students and can partner well with a variety of readings in your curriculum.
Before You Begin
Because each of these stories share voices that are often silenced, they must be given “big space” in the classroom. By that we mean stories must be read more than once, and annotated–listened to, carefully. These stories should be celebrated. They should invite a reader to go inward. They should invite a conversation between the reader and the writer.
These suggested writing and discussion prompts assume that you have done work to set up a safe space in your classroom, that you offer opportunities for students to journal privately as well as for you as the audience, and that you remind students of how to engage respectfully when sharing different opinions. Some questions below are best saved for independent writing, while some might work for small-group discussion, and others, for large-group discussion. Some may be good material for research and independent projects.
These questions assume that students will have a choice of a few questions and from more than one section, and that they can also propose their own prompts in response. Students should be encouraged to make a personal and emotional connection as well as an intellectual connection with Reed’s story.
These are not stories that should be used as a preface to engage in debates over issues or politics, nor should they be assigned as essays to pick apart for those political points. These are stories that should encourage thoughtful reflection rather than argument.
Work with your school counselors, department chairs, and administrators as necessary to ensure you can appropriately support students who may come forward with difficult circumstances or stories.
In some circles, English teachers wonder whether empathy can be taught. Can a student who’s never experienced Reed’s particular circumstances possibly empathize with her? Not fully. But students who don’t know won’t know any more unless we ask them to connect. A student learning that such events happen to other people should be able to find points of connection and attempt to learn more.
Questions for Writing and Discussion of “Finding My Feminism”
Making a personal connection
- Gifted kids are often outliers. Reed lists many ways in which she was different than other kids when it comes to abilities, interests, and ways she acted and spent her time. How are you an outlier? In what ways do you not fit the mold of other kids?
- Reed’s feminism led her to take action through protests and writing, among many other actions. Gifted youth often pursue activist causes and take an interest or leadership role in areas that matter to their local, state, national, and/or international community. In what ways have you been an activist or leader in your own socio-political spectrum? Or, if you don’t personally relate, but you have a person whom you admire and deem an activist, talk about that person and why and how they inspire you.
- Gifted youth are often perfectionists and judge themselves harshly by tough if not ideal standards. In what ways did Reed deem herself a fake feminist? Why? Do you agree with her self-assessment she made when she was a teen? Can you still be an activist for a cause if your life is not “perfect” by certain standards?
- Can you relate to feeling like an imposter? What stories do you have about these feelings?
- Reed experiences rape. She explains how she blamed herself. Why does she say she blamed herself? What are you learning from her story about the experience of survivors?
- Talk about personal responsibility versus blame when it comes to incidents in your life. Are there questions that haunt you about your life experiences where you wonder if it was your fault? How do you understand your choices, and others’ choices, now?
- “I realize I was writing The Nowhere Girls for myself,” Reed says. Create a poem or song, or any other type of creative work you feel led to make, in response to ideas or issues that Reed’s essay explores.
- How are you taking action to better the world when it comes to issues of sexual assault and rape culture? Explain with a story.
- Sexual assault is misunderstood by many, the most common misunderstandings being that rape only occurs between strangers or that it’s a rare event. Read this quote by Reed talking about powers in her life that affected her. Where do you see these powers at work in our culture or your community? Give an example.
“My choice was stolen, not by one physical act of assault, but by a combination of powers outside my control–my young age, my lack of education around sexuality, my emotionally unavailable parents, the trauma of transition and living in what I perceived to be an unsafe environment, my emotionally abusive friend, a culture of masculinity that does not teach boys to question silence and does not train them to know what it looks like when a girl’s lights go out” (28).
- RAINN provides resources about sexual violence. Read some statistics here, explore information on this website, and react to what you are learning.
- How are people taking action to prevent sexual violence? Besides recommendations by RAINN, what other research can you do and resources can you find? Share some of what you are learning.
- Emily Lindin began The Unslut Project as a response to being slut shamed between the ages of 11 and 14. Her diaries inspired a powerful project, including a documentary. Learn more about her work, and share elements that impress, strike, or otherwise affect you.
- Reed shares how she was not taught what consent looks like. How do you define consent? What have you been taught–or what are you not being taught? Read the definition provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and take notes on elements that you feel are important for you to remember. Why did you record what you did?
- What is feminism? Does Reed define it? Can you define it? Begin by reviewing general definitions, and explore authors and activists who are considered leaders of feminism. Build a working definition of feminism that is grounded in history, current events, and your community’s needs.
- “Rape culture is the culture of silence,” Reed writes. Read her quote below, then analyze one of these elements she describes that you have observed in your school or community. How is what she describes true in your life, your school, and/or your community? What particular form does it take?
“It’s the culture of girls thinking a boy’s desires trumps their own. It’s the culture of girls thinking they’re choiceless, of girls thinking their bodies are the most valuable parts of themselves and their worth is determined by how much they are wanted. It’s slut shaming and victim blaming. It’s parents not talking openly with their children about consent. It’s parents not talking to girls about their entitlement to pleasure. It’s parents not talking to their children about sex at all” (30).
- What silencing forces do you see in historical events, in economic systems, in cultural traditions, in language that lead to people keeping silent when they should speak up?
- Emily Lindin began The Unslut Project as a response to being slut shamed between the ages of 11 and 14. Her diaries inspired a powerful project, including a documentary. Learn more about her work and share your reactions to it.
- What are students doing in your school or local college or university to respond to issues of sexual violence? What are ways you might get involved?
- What small changes can you make today in your behavior to change the culture?
- If you have another idea for a post in response to this essay, propose it to the teacher.
Be Ready to Support Students
No matter what your background, you can support students as they write their way through new understandings or tell you stories you’ve never heard. Be open to their experiences and listen hard. Seek support from your school counselors should you see any writing that speaks to student trauma or pain, so you can respond sensitively.
The most important thing we can communicate when speaking with our students is letting them know they are seen and heard, and they are not alone.
Amy Reed offers several excellent resources related to sexual assault prevention and support for students who are struggling.
Find Partner Texts
Works you might consider teaching in tandem with this essay include
- All the Rage by Courtney Summers
- Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857-2017 by Lucinda Gosling, Hilary Robinson, and Amy Tobin
- Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding
- Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
- How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought by Lyn Fairchild Hawks
- I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson
- Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather
- Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
- Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
- The Opposite of Innocent by Sonya Sones
- The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie
Remember the Spirit
As you navigate this anthology with students and think about how to set up fruitful reflection and discussion, remember these words from Reed:
This is our love letter to America, to the young people who are hurting and scared. You are not alone. We hear you. We are listening. We stand by you. We will survive as we have always survived: together.”(xii)
Let’s make the classroom space a community where all gifted students can raise their heads and show who they are without doubt or fear.
Stay tuned for future posts on this anthology and how to include it in your classroom.